In the 1850s, there was considerable anti-Catholic sentiment in the United Kingdom.
The focus of this sentiment was on three issues which were the subject of intense political debate:
1. the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales by Pope Pius IX in 1850 (the so called "Papal Aggression" affair)
2. the state funding for St. Patrick’s Catholic seminary in Maynooth, Ireland, and
3. the demand for convent inspection and regulation
For a brief history of the issues see Frank Wallis: Anti-Catholicism in Mid-Victorian Britain- Theory and Discipline (The Journal of Religion and Society ,Volume 7, 2005)
The attempt to regulate and (suppress ?) convents and monasteries in Victorian Britain is long forgotten. But it probably was the most serious attempt to undermine the Church in this time. If it had succeeded the history of the modern Catholic Church in Britain would have been very different.
Grievances against convents (as noted in petitions and parliamentary debates) included references to defenceless women at the mercy of clever priests, separation from family control, “unnatural” vows and lifestyle (i.e., not motherhood and domesticity), and loss of property (or territory) to the Roman Catholic Church authorities. The convent issue actually had little to do with theology, canon law, or loyalty to the Queen or the State.
The Papal Aggression Affair and the Maynooth Grant issues were resolved and over and done with in a few years. However the demands for convent inspection and regulation continued for decades.
Two bills were introduced and were only narrowly defeated.
The Religious Houses Bill 1851 would have allowed Justices of the Peace to make inquiries after any woman suspected of being held against her will in a convent.
The Recovery of Personal Liberty Bill 1853 would have compelled the Home Secretary to send JPs and state inspectors to any convent suspected of coercion or false imprisonment, and if necessary apply for a writ of habeas corpus.
Each year motions were brought in Parliament to similar effect. Some asked for a Select Committee to be appointed to investigate convents.
Naturally such offensive allegations caused considerable resentment on the part of the religious as well as the general Catholic population at the time
In a letter to the editor of the Catholic Standard, Lady Teresa Arundell wrote in 1852:
" To Catholic ladies, who, like myself, have sisters and relatives in convents, it is, indeed, humiliating and most painful, that, in England, hitherto considered the land of liberty, we should be forced to exert our influence to save those loved ones form the grossest insults, the most unmanly attempt now being made to deprive them of a security which even the meanest women slaves have insured to them. Can it be possible that, to the members of the House of Commons, heroic virtue is so hateful, that no insult is too great to offer those who dedicated themselves to its constant practice? Is Divine charity so distasteful to English Protestants, that ladies, by devoting their lives to its various duties, should become objects so contemptible that they are to be deprived, by law, of the liberty granted to the meanest of their sex, even to the most abandoned? Oh! that such a reproach on Englishmen should go forth to the world! Hatred of Catholicity is a poor plea for so cowardly, so wanton an insult to ladies."
Matters rumbled on and came to the boil again in the late 1860s.
It was The Great Convent Case of February 1869 which set the subject alight again:
Saurin v. Star & Kenedy, was tried before Lord Chief Justice Cockburn in the Court of Queen's Bench in London.
Susan Mary Saurin (formerly a member of the Sisters of Mercy) had been transferred from a convent in Ireland to Hull. She alleged that prior to being asked to leave the order in Hull, she had been mistreated, assaulted and imprisoned by the other sisters under the direction of the Mother Superior, Mary Ann Star. She sought damages and the return of her dowry of £ 300. The total damages sought was £ 5000. She won her action but was only awarded £ 500 in total (still a very large sum in those days).
The trial occupied many days and was extensively reported in all the media. Naturally it aroused a very great deal of interest. Tabloid journalism is not a recent phenomenon.
A full Report of the case is in The great convent case; Saurin v. Star & Kenedy, tried before Lord Chief Justice Cockburn in the court of Queen's Bench, February 1869 : containing the speeches of counsel on both sides, and the evidence of the various witnesses (1869)
The case was in the tradition of the penny press of the early nineteenth-century scandal sheets, the enormously popular 'Awful Disclosures', alleged and real ex-nuns of the likes of Maria Monk (1836), Rebecca Reed (1835), Edith O'Gorman (1886), and Josephine Bunkley (1855), and the 'plight' of women incarcerated in convents, and were appropriated by the anti-Catholic crusade
In March/April 1870, a Motion in the House of Commons to establish a Select Committee to enquire into convents as well as monastic institutions was passed, despite the strenuous efforts of the Government under Prime Minister Gladstone to defeat it.
(Gladstone, a devout Anglican testified to the need for conventual institutions for women. In 1840, he said:
"It has long been a matter of regret to many that the Church of England possesses no institution similar to that of the Sisters of Mercy. For many years the internal conditions of our great towns, and the intensity of accumulated misery, side by side with our luxury of comfor or of wealth have weighed heavily upon the minds of those who are in any way acquainted with the state of the poor."
William Ewart Gladstone: Sisters of Mercy- Circular Letter c.1848 quoted in Thomas J Williams, "Priscilla Lydia Sellon: The Restorer after Three Centuries of the Religious Life in the English Church (London SPCK 1865, pages 287-9 )
Indeed with others he had helped found an Anglican sisterhood of nuns at All Saints, the beginnings of an Anglican revival in convent life.
The Act of 1536 which granted Henry VIII the power to suppress monasteries and nunneries also granted him another power, one that is little recognized in religious history texts. It made provision for the King to re-found as well as suppress Religious Communities. Henry VIII granted royal license after the Act was passed to no fewer then forty-seven religious houses for both men and women, reestablishing them “in perpetuity.”)
The speeches in the House of Commons in favour of the Motions give a good taste of the level of the sheer passion against the idea of women religious in convents.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that roughly at the same time there occurred the First Vatican Council (1869-70) and the beginnings of Bismarck`s Kulturkampf in Germany. In Italy, the Italian Government published its proposals to suppress all monasteries within its jurisdiction in the 1860s.
Many Victorians perceived convents to be expanding, and as mounting threats to Protestantism.
Statistics of questionable accuracy appeared in many places, demonstrating the prominence of convents. In 1874, Fraser’s Magazine reported that there was an “astonishing” number of convent schools in the United Kingdom—238 to be precise.This would indicate that there were at least as many convents, and most likely many more which did not have schools associated with them.
One historian writes that the number of convents in England rose from sixteen in 1841 to 187 in 1865, a huge increase in a very short period of time.
See: Hansard HC Deb 29 March 1870 vol 200 cc872-908 and Hansard HC Deb 08 April 1870 vol 200 cc1588-98
Fortunately the Select Committee exonerated the convents and the monasteries in its Report, needless to say.
It looked into the position not only in England and Wales but also in Scotland.
It gave them a clean bill of health. This was looked on with relief not only by Catholics but also Anglicans, who inspired by Tractarianism, had begun to re-establish monasteries and convents.
From 1850 to 1905, the number of convents and monasteries in England and Wales grew from 52 to 1057.
In 1905, there were 592 in Ireland and 62 in Scotland.
The question was essentially resolved by the Select Committee although Irish Unionists continued to raise the issue of another Select Committee being appointed over the years.especially in the years after 1906, when many French monasteries relocated to Britain in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries in France in that year.